Tips & Techniques for lighting Live Music Concerts

Tips & Techniques for lighting Live Music Concerts

Top Tips from Live Music 2022 Winner John Lyons

Tips & Techniques for lighting Live Music Concerts

Top Tips from Live Music 2022 Winner John Lyons

As a concert photographer, the good news is that you don’t have to worry about setting up lighting and, if you’re shooting an established artist at a largeish venue, the chances are that the lighting setup will be professional and tailored to the artist performing. However, lighting that looks spectacular when you’re at the gig can look pretty unflattering in a photograph. And, if you’re shooting at a small venue or club, the lighting might be poor quality and low intensity.

The challenge is to work with the light you are given. Find the style that works for you and then look for the opportunities to capture images in that style. Here are a few thoughts from my experience over the last few years.

Planning the Shot

Key to success is planning your shots. Often concert photographers are limited to shooting the first 3 or 4 songs only, in which case you need to size up the lighting and act quickly. Before the artist comes on stage, check out the position of the lighting and where your subjects are going to be on stage. If you really want the perfect shot, consider going to the show twice, so you know what to expect. You’ll be well prepared to use the short time you have… and you get to enjoy the show twice. I remember a Joan as Policewoman gig last year where I was positioned ready for her to appear centre stage with her guitar… only to find that she was performing from the piano on the first song and that I was in completely the wrong place.

For most of the work I do, I have the luxury of being able to shoot for the whole gig and freedom to move (stealthily) around the room. Look for the images you really want to get and what needs to happen for the lighting to work for you.

For this image of Tony Kofi, I wanted to capture him emerging out of the darkness and into the spotlight. For most of the gig, Tony was stood at the back of stage right, just out of the spotlight, which was setup to highlight the singer. It was almost the end of the second set when I got my chance to capture the shot, as he stepped forward at the start of a solo.

Low Key Lighting

I do most of my photography in jazz clubs where the lighting can be very variable and often quite low. My personal style tends towards ‘low key’, with the subject interacting with both the light and dark to reflect, even exaggerate, the atmosphere of a club and the drama of the music. This image I took of Brazilian jazz singer Luna Cohen when I was just starting out has a little motion blur, but I like the way that the eye is drawn to the curve of her hip as she dances and the viewer is required to fill in the full picture as most of her body is hidden in the darkness.

A favourite technique of mine is to find the moment where the artist turns their face away from the spotlight. Not only does this make for a more interesting composition, if the lighting is relatively low, then the effect is to have one side of the face highlighted and the other side in shadow. If the subject’s face is 45% to the spotlight light, then it’s possible to capture the ‘Rembrandt Effect’, with a soft triangle of light on the cheek that’s facing away from the light.

Here are a few examples:

Rim Lighting

Another lighting style I look for opportunities to exploit is Rim Lighting, where the subject’s hair or outline of their face is highlighted by backlighting. This is great for creating an effect that is both glamorous and dramatic, creating separation of the subject from the background, particularly where the background is dark. This is an effect that concert lighting engineers tend to look for, so is often very achievable.

Here are a few examples including the shot of Joan as Policewoman that I so nearly missed because I was in the wrong place.

Dealing with Multi Coloured Lighting

Personally, I find this one of the most challenging aspects of concert photography. Bright multi coloured lighting is a feature of many concerts and what looks amazing at the show, often looks garish and unflattering on still images.

Take time to observe the lighting changes and pick your moments. I try to avoid moments where the subject’s face is lit with two bright colours as it's very unflattering in still photos. Instead, look for angles and moments where the colour changes are subtle or where the subject is positioned with one colour behind them and one in front. Again, patience is key.

On this image of Chris Hyde-Harrison, the two-colour lighting (which was quite low at a gig in a church) created a nice soft contrast on either side of his face.

Failing that, if you’re stuck with harsh and unflattering multi-coloured lighting, changing to Black and White and adjusting the black and white colour mix in post-processing may enable you to rescue your images.

Finally, when faced with very bright multi-coloured lighting, it’s worth checking the white balance on your camera at the start of the gig. If you’re using auto white balance, you might find your camera makes the wrong adjustments and you end up with images that look very different to the original lighting and too extreme to fix in post-processing.

Find out how to manually set white balance on your camera and adjust until the image in the viewfinder approximately reflects what you can see. It doesn’t need to be perfect as you can do fine adjustments in post-processing.

Dealing with Shadows

Look out for harsh shadows as they can ruin otherwise perfect shots. When photographing singers, shadows cast by the microphone can be particularly problematic. Look for angles that avoid these or moments where the singer moves their face away from the mic.

It’s really important to consciously look out for these. Our brains do a great job of filtering out distracting items in real time that then are painfully apparent in still images.

In this example, I really wanted to capture Noreen Stewart looking so cool as backing singer for Chris Ballin. For most of the gig, she was facing the mic with a harsh shadow across her face. I managed to get a few profile shots to avoid the mic shadow but what I really wanted was to capture her whole face. So, I positioned myself at 45 degrees and waited until this moment where she stepped back and looked to one side towards my camera. As a bonus, the shadow of the mic that was across her face most of the gig creates a pretty dramatic line down her body.

Post Processing

I do all my post processing in Lightroom. As I’ve gained experience, I’ve learned to make my post processing more subtle. Key lighting-related themes from my workflow are:

  • Refine the colour balance – as mentioned above, I’ve learned through bitter experience to not rely on the camera auto white balance. However, small adjustments in post processing can really help make the image more lifelike, especially where bright colourful lighting has been used
  • Like most photographers, I tend to increase contrast a little, brighten shadows and darken highlights to increase the dynamic range
  • I use the AI in Lightroom to select the subject, adjusting manually where required (this manual adjustment can be quite fiddly with brass instruments, which the AI doesn’t tend to pick up!). For low key effects, I tend to brighten shadows and darken blacks on the background. This sounds counterintuitive but it helps create a dark background with hints of what’s in the background, maybe a table with glasses and a wine bottle, or some faces of the audience, but not prominent enough to distract from the subject. I might also reduce overall exposure of the background but this has to be subtle to avoid the subject looking unnaturally disconnected from the background
  • If there are harsh shadows or colour changes across the subject’s face, often using the healing tool along the line of the shadow can soften it a little
  • I apply a small amount of noise reduction but again I’ve learned through experience that, in low light situations, it’s better to increase the ISO in camera and accept some graininess. I find even moderate amounts of noise reduction in Lightroom give features an unpleasant waxy look
  • Finally, if I’ve converted to Black and White, I’ll adjust the black and white colour mix. This can help even tones generally and also reduce the prominence of back lighting if it’s a different colour to the front lighting. It’s also another good way to deal with harsh tones created by multi-coloured lighting

In this image of Toni Robinson and the BASSNote Collective, I wanted the tell the story of the audience on their feet dancing right close up to the performers; Toni’s connection with the singer far right; and the videographer getting in close to capture her performance. All this was visible in the original RAW image but, using subtle adjustments, I’ve tried to highlight the aspects of the image that I wanted to stand out.

And Finally…

My biggest piece of advice is to experiment, take lots of shots and find your own style. I’ve found out what works for me by trial and error, combined with a little bit of theory and best practice. You’ll learn loads about what works and what doesn’t by analysing both the hits and misses and, over time, your hit rate will definitely improve and your personal style will develop.